Origins of Islam
To understand Islam, you must understand the harsh circumstances into which the religion was born. The Arabian Peninsula at the time of Muhammad (b.570 AD) was a barren and desolate region with scorching sun and oppressive heat by day, and chilling cold at night. There was little vegetative growth, and the nomadic inhabitants lived between jagged rocks and shifting sand dunes.
While Europe and much of the Middle East was transitioning from the Roman to the Byzantine Empire, with roads, irrigation canals, aqueducts, and a culture that included philosophical discourse and theater, the Arabians lived short and brutal lives in warring tribes with little to offer the rest of the world beyond their own harsh existence.
This partly explains Islam’s inherent hostility to music and art, which some extremists, such as the Taliban, take quite literally. Islam does not encourage the pursuit of knowledge outside of itself. It is, as Oriana Fallaci puts it, it is “the religion which has produced nothing but religion.”
The inhospitable climate protected the peninsula from conquest and cultural influence. No foreign army felt that sheep and goats were worth taking from the desert fighters, so the area was relatively isolated, with the exception of certain trading routes. The renaissance of knowledge that the rest of the world had been experiencing since the Greek revival was largely missed out on by the Arabs, whose entire energies were devoted to daily survival against the ruthless environment and other tribes.
For these people, morality was dictated merely by necessity, and obligations did not extend beyond one’s tribe. This is a critical basis for the development of the Islamic attitude toward those outside the faith, including the moral principle that the ethics of any act are determined only by whether or not it benefits Muslims.
There were pagan religious traditions in Arabia, particularly among those based in the trading centers such as Muhammad’s birthplace of Mecca. Some of these towns had Kaabas – cube-like structures that would attract pilgrims during holy months. The Kaaba at Mecca housed various idols, including the black meteorite that remains to this day.
In addition to the black rock, Muhammad’s Quraish tribe worshipped a moon god called Allah. Other gods were recognized as well. In fact, the town of Mecca was renowned for religious tolerance, where people of all faiths could come and pray at the Kaaba. (This would later change once Muhammad gained the power to establish his authority by force).
Islam was created both from these crude pagan practices and from the basic theological elements of Christianity and Judaism as Muhammad [often erroneously] understood them (his inaccurate interpretation of Christianity, for example, is often attributed to an early experience with fringe cults in the Palestinian region, then known as Syria).
Early Life at Mecca
Muhammad was born around 570 AD to a widowed mother who died just six years later. He grew up poor and orphaned on the margins of society, which was controlled by tribal chiefs and trading merchants. He worked for his uncle, Abu Talib, as a camel herder. Although his uncle had some standing in the community, Muhammad himself did not rise above his lowly station until he was 25, when he met and married a wealthy widow, Khadija, who was 15 years older.
His wife’s trading business not only nurtured Muhammad’s natural talents of persuasion, but it also gave the successful salesman an opportunity to travel and acquire knowledge that was not as accessible to the local population. He would later use this to his advantage by incorporating the stories that he had come across into his “revelations” from Allah, particularly the tales from the earlier religions, Judaism and Christianity.
Having attained a comfortable lifestyle and the idle time that wealth affords, Muhammad would wander off occasionally for periods of meditation and contemplation. It is quite likely that he was experiencing the symptoms of a midlife crisis, including a desire for personal accomplishment and meaning.
One day, at the age of 40, he told his wife that he had been visited by the angel Gabriel in a dream. Thus began a series of “revelations” which lasted almost until his death 23 years later. The Qur’an is a collection of words that Muhammad attributed to Allah. The Hadith is a collection of narrations of the life and deeds of Muhammad. The Sira is his recorded biography. The Sunnah is said to be Muhammad’s way of life, on which Islamic law (Sharia) is based.
With his wife’s influence and support, Muhammad proclaimed himself a prophet in same “lineage” as that of Abraham and Jesus, and began trying to convert those around him to his new religion. He narrated the Quran to those who believed him, telling them that it was the word of Allah (heard only by himself, of course).
Muhammad’s Quran did not contain a single original moral value and it contributed only one new idea to world religion – that Muhammad is Allah’s prophet. In fact, Muhammad’s “Allah” seemed oddly preoccupied with making sure Muslims knew to obey Muhammad’s every earthly wish, as this mandate is repeated at least twenty times in the narration of the Quran.
In the beginning, Muhammad did his best to compromise his teachings with the predominant beliefs of the community’s elders, such as combining all 300 of their idols under the name “Allah.” His amalgamation of Judeo-Christian theology and pagan tradition grew more sophisticated over time. He also used his “revelations from Allah” to repeatedly affirm his own position. Even if he did not remember the Biblical stories correctly, for example, each one was conspicuously modified to incorporate a common theme: “Believe in the Messenger (Muhammad) or suffer the consequences.”